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Frustrations with no signs of spiritual growth in teens

We’re all in youth ministry because we want to see teens move from being spiritually apathetic to being spiritually passionate, so when time passes and we see no signs of growth, it gets frustrating. Often we feel like we’re wasting our time, that our investment is pointless or that we should move our focus to a student that might produce more favorable results. It’s important to understand why we become frustrated because maybe then we won’t give up as easily on that “hard to reach” kid.

1. Unrealistic Expectations
What is it exactly that you expect to see in the teenager who’s supposedly not growing? Apparently you feel the student is not where you think they should be, but what is it that place where you think they should be right now? Perhaps your idea is unrealistic, especially since it’s quite possible that there are other factors in that student’s life and thought process that are unknown to you.

2. Remember: growth is a process
The process is longer for some than for others. It also takes a different path for everyone. There’s no such thing as microwavable spiritual fruit — it takes time to grow. Just because the fruit isn’t ripening as fast as you think it should doesn’t mean it won’t ripen eventually, maybe at a time when you’re not around to observe it. Allow the Holy Spirit to work in His timing.

3. We’re watching close-up
Staring at a pot of dirt to watch a seed grow is frustrating. You could stand there for a week and not see any evidence of growth. However, if you come back maybe three weeks after it’s been nurtured, watered and cared for, what was happening all that time beneath the surface is now displayed as a visual sign of growth. But if you stared at the plant the entire time, it would appear as if nothing was changing. Likewise, in our daily interaction with teens, we’re often watching for growth from a constant up-close perspective so we don’t notice the slow, but drastic, changes taking place. Look at your own life: where are you now spiritually compared to five years ago? I see my little brother and sister every couple months and they look more grown-up every time, but to my parents, who live with them, the growth is unnoticeable. Just because you don’t see the growth doesn’t mean it’s not there.

God never gives up on you. Don’t you give up on spiritually apathetic teens!


Posted on May 21, 2008

  • Lee Roberts

    Great reminder. This very much hit me right now. I’m horribly frustrated with the growth or lack of it that I have seen lately. I need to keep pressing on and let God take care of the rest. Thanks for the solid reminder.

  • Hey Tim, i think your last statement is a great one. i do agree that to often because of our close involvement in students lives we don’t see any growth or stirring until it turns in to a bean stalk. over all i think a good reminder.

    something i would like to add is that with your number 2. (as well we all know) another reminder is that growth never ends, i’m not the same person now that i was 6 months, and that 6 months ago wasn’t the same guy 4 years ago and so on, just as Tim you aren’t the same spiritual person you were a few days ago and so on. we are continually growing and maturing in His grace, Peter is the best example of this, going from a loud mouth, little faith, sword drawing bigot (not wanting to take the gospel to the gentiles) to being a very wise apostle of the early church who helped counsel and reform the thoughts of men and women of the day to better understand their king.
    lastly….we don’t do any of the growing. i believe that is our biggest down fall with frustration. we feel if we do this (garden technique) and water this way we will have instant growth or this will happen. and the truth is, we do very little in that process (1 Cor 3.7) we have to remember our place in the kingdom work which i know i lose my baring a lot of the time to think…heck i might be god and know whats best.

    again thought tim, great reminder of patience and more reason to pray for our students, thanks

  • @ Brit: I agree that any growth that takes place is solely a work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life. However, we are often the tool that the Holy Spirit uses to make a difference in someone’s life. Because of this, we can’t just dismiss our role in the growth process with the excuse, “We don’t do any of the growing.” The same is true of evangelism. We are NOT the ones who do the saving, but the Lord chooses to use us as the tool to communicate His gospel that will change a life. The outcome isn’t up to us, but the responsibility is still ours to speak Truth into the lives of teenagers. Even though it’s definitely not dependant on us, our role in the growth process is probably bigger than we understand.

    Just from a personal level, the biggest influences in my life have been the other people that the Lord uses to keep me on track. In fact, I’m in youth ministry today because of it. I’m sure most of us have similar stories.

  • oh i would agree totally Tim, its a such a hard dichotomy to be in i think. C.S. Lewis says it best when talking about the Kingdom and then to add Dallas Willard into the mix, we are in the yet but not yet, and Jesus is all about the backwardness. we don’t play a role, but yet we do, the lasts will be first, we till and take care but don’t cause growth, partakers in the great work but the work is done for and done by Him….very mind ‘bottling’ (great movie quote) that this is how our King, the King works.

    as part of community and faith we see the hand of God in others working through us. its trying to understand what the movement of God through us really looks like….and i totally agree, our biggest influences are other people…thats the way the Father designed it to happen.

    i think the problem is one of two things can end up happening, you have people who will just sit back and think that the ‘bush will burn for everyone’ and they will come (which i like to call lazy wrongly viewed Calvinism) and the other group has the intention if i don’t nothing will be done, nothing will happen, its about me saying this to this person at this time and if i don’t they are eteranally damned (which is like a strange hyper calvinism meets arminianism) its finding that balance of truly knowin our place in his kingdom

  • @ Brit: Exactly. Spiritual growth in teens doesn’t depend on us, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when it doesn’t appear to be happening, but yet we’re still influential in that process however the Lord chooses to use us in it. We have the responsibility to give input to the process even though the process doesn’t depend on us. Weird, huh?

  • Great thoughts tim. I talked with my leaders yesterday about having high expectations for our students. I think its important to have high expectations for our students and yet at the same time understand that are expectation might not be realistic. My tendency is to say I taught it, they know it, they should be living it. But God is the one working in their lives and hearts. God is the one who causes change. We need to do our part and then leave the life change to God. Keep high expectations but don’t base life change on your own expectations. Thanks for the post tim.

  • @ Jeremy: When I originally wrote this post I included a section about expectations versus standards, but later removed it because it made the post too long and didn’t contribute a whole lot to the overall point of the post. However, as a recap of what I omitted, we should have very attainable expectations and high standards for teens. Yes, we should hold high standards for students, but not necessarily high expectations. Make the expectations easy to meet so the spiritual growth progress becomes clear every little step of the way. This makes it exciting as a sense of accomplishment for both for the students and for you observing them. Keep the standards high, though, if that makes sense.

  • it is indeed tim. praise be to God for the shaping, nonshaping we get to be apart of in His glorious kingdom

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  • I think we as pastors & youth pastors need to be redirected to the fact that we merely plant the seeds, as has been pointed out. We don’t do the growing. We’ve all heard this analogy before but I think we forget this when we don’t see all the “external” signs of growth. We plant the seeds and water and God grows. But I want to re-affirm the comment that we have a responsibility, really an obligation to make sure those seeds are planted well and we are watering on a daily basis.

  • so i shouldn’t be worried about the plants on my front porch. they will start growing if i stop kicking the pot every day for not growing? &:~D

  • Tim,

    This was a great post. I especially liked your points on high-expectations and process-growth. I grew up in a Charismatic background that expects dramatic changes, even in kids’ lives, through the power of the Spirit (Hallelujah!~~), but it doesn’t seem to just happen that way, at least in today’s kids. I took a Youth Ministry class last year at Fuller, with Chap Clark, and it liberated me, because I learned that a lot of the “no signs of growth” has to do with the developmental stages of our students. Just like we cannot expect junior high students to do difficult college-level calculus and linear algebra, we should not expect them to change overnight, and conduct city-wide revivals and fast for 40 consecutive days. Of course, there are the spiritual Dougie Howser MDs, like in the natural world, but they are the exception, not the rule.

    Having said that, I am still frustrated with the general apathy/indifference I see in today’s youth – caused by the worldliness that permeates their lives, and think that we have to meet this cold, spiritual callousness, head on, with some fervent prayer. Last month, God providentially sent a prayer warrior to our church (I needed him so bad, because my prayer life was dead), and together, we have started doing some prayer vigils on behalf of the youth; and in the past few weeks, we have started seeing some spiritual breakthroughs (e.g. kids are paying more attention to the messages, more powerful altar calls, etc.).

    So while we should not get frustrated by the slow growth of our students, I do believe that we should engage in more prayer for them to break some of the spiritual walls that have built around their lives. Maybe the approach can be we push with fervent prayer, but don’t get discouraged/frustrated if results are not immediate.

    The struggling, wanting to stand-back up prayer warrior,

    John

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  • Stephen Modawell

    If we are working on our own growth… then we will see growth in our teens. When we stall… our teens stall!

  • I have to agree with most everything said so far, with the exception of Britt, spiritual growth is a elongated process that takes a long time.. But not all of us are going through that process, some of us just don’t want nothing to do with church or anything.. But you must be talking about the people who are striving to move forward in their relationship with God. Anyways, to disagree is not the propose of this comment.

    So far (to my knowlede) only teachers and youth leaders have commented, well I am not a teacher or a youth leader, I am a freshman in high school. (I am working on one of my assignments about spiritual growth, and landed here.) And it has been a dramatic change. My eighth grade year was filled with not so good friends, in school suspension, and bad grades. I went to a pretty big public school, and contrary to what I wanted my mom has me going to a private school, that has changed me so much. For the better, it’s a small christian school. Here we start school with a prayer, and end it with again with a much needed prayer. It has helped me grow so much to be here.

    Thanks for all you do Mom!!

  • the most memorable movie quote that i could think of is the one on Forest Gump ~**

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